Rangers in top flight: A question of ambition... and money

Andrew Smith asks how Rangers will fare in the top flight, and concludes the club currently has neither the cash nor the players to mount a title challenge

Danny Wilson applauds the fans after Rangers clinched the Championship title. How will they fare in the top flight? Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Danny Wilson applauds the fans after Rangers clinched the Championship title. How will they fare in the top flight? Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Q There is a Rangers in the top flight again.Which means everything will return to the way it was when there was an Ibrox club in the set-up previously, right?

A Hardly. The easy part for Rangers was – or should have been – coming through the leagues. Since liquidation forced them to start again in the fourth tier in 2012, they have been massively outspending the clubs at their level. That ends next season. The Rangers wage bill, believed to be around £7million, may be the second largest in the country, but Aberdeen’s wage costs were quoted as £6.44m in their most recent accounts.

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Earlier this week, Hearts manager Robbie Neilson said that Rangers would need to bridge the off-the-field gap with champions Celtic, operating with what he stated was a £24m wage bill, if they hope match them on the field. The reality is that the Rangers coming up to the top tier can be bracketed alongside the Pittodrie side and the Tynecastle men much more than Celtic when talking about playing resources.

Q What spend can Mark Warburton expect to bolster his squad and bridge the gap to Celtic?

A The Rangers manager, and members of his playing squad, have acknowledged that they are in tune with the support over the demand that a credible challenge be mounted to Celtic next season. That will require an injection of cash that the club would hardly seem to have at its disposal. Chairman Dave King and his investment partners are on the hook for almost £10m in soft loans to finance what remains a loss-making venture.

Potentially, a hike both in the cost and numbers of season ticket sales could offer Rangers some latitude, alongside further “over-investment” King has said he and others are willing to provide. Yet, with no retail revenue of note and the desperate need to divert serious funds into an extensive maintenance programme for a tired-looking Ibrox, Warburton will have to make a little go a long way.

However, he could point to the fact that Aberdeen, on a lesser budget than he will surely be given, have succeeded in pushing Ronny Deila’s largely unconvincing Celtic side in the Premiership this season. The one problem with such an assessment is that, owing to the very presence of Rangers in the top flight, Celtic will also see an increase in ticket sales and game earnings to beef up their purchasing power.

Having said all that, the fact Leicester City are on course to win an English Premier League awash with astronomical spenders only two years after earning promotion is evidence that in football far more arduous ascents have been negotiated in rapid order than that faced by Rangers to reach the Scottish game’s summit.

Q What would success be for Rangers next season?

AMidfielder Andy Halliday effectively said in the aftermath of the title-securing 1-0 victory at home to Dumbarton on Tuesday night that there would be no glory in a club the size of Rangers finishing second. Yet, privately at least, in a first season following promotion surely a finish securing a place in the Europa League qualifiers would be an acceptable outcome. Aberdeen and Hearts aren’t simply going to roll over and allow the Ibrox men to eclipse them, though, and next season fascinates because there is no way of knowing how competitive Rangers will be. If they struggle to make the top three it could have serious repercussions for the team management, and the plan for incremental progress plotted by the board of directors.

Q What sort of changes to his squad will Warburton be required to make to deliver on his promise “not just to make in the numbers” in the Premiership?

A The 53-year-old English has put the total number of fresh arrivals at “five or six”. Yet, he has acknowledged that such a figure could merely mean replacing those who depart. It seems unlikely that out of contract players Dean Shiels, Nicky Clark, Nicky Law and David Templeton will be with the club next season. Meanwhile, English loan players Dominic Ball and Gedion Zelalem will return to parent sides Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal respectively, while Billy King is scheduled to head back to Hearts.

Warburton favours working with a tight squad. He has maintained that he would rather have too few players than too many, such does he value senior professionals having a clear pathway to the first-team and opportunities for youngsters within the club’s academy. But he needs a clutch of key signings to have any chance of giving Celtic food for thought. It is difficult to see more than a couple of million being made available to him to finance these purchases.

Warburton said the other week it was a “fact” that teams coming up are always under-estimated as he expressed bemusement at Hearts taking apart the squad that romped the Championship last season and bringing in a raft of new faces for the more onerous challenges of the top flight. One of the players discarded was Jason Holt, who has proved a highly influential performer for Rangers.

In all departments of the side Rangers seem weak. The centre-back pairing of Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan simply does not convince, and the recruitment of a quick, commanding figure for the middle of Rangers’ defence surely is a priority. The expansive nature of Warburton’s team would appear to make them vulnerable down the flanks too. Perhaps, though, this is a stylistic issue rather than a personnel one, even if full-back James Tavernier’s incredible 13-goal haul should not disguise the forward-focused player’s defensive limitations.

The pursuit of Scott Allan last summer told of a recognition by Warburton, and assistant David Weir, that they lacked a playmaker with the vision to sit off the play and craft defence-splitting passes. Up front, meanwhile, even the remarkable Kenny Miller, 37 at the end of this year, has to succumb to the age process sooner rather than later. Goals have dried up in the absence of Martyn Waghorn, pictured left, and the Englishman cannot be expected to carry the scoring burden he has shouldered this year – the reason why Dundee’s Greg Stewart has been heavily linked with a move to Ibrox.

Two strikers, two midfielders – one a winger with pace –and three defenders would be a conservative estimate of the squad bolstering required by Rangers. The club becomes an easier sell to prospective signings as a top-flight side guaranteed four massive fabled fixtures courtesy of the derby days against Celtic. Warburton has said recruitment is everything to his Rangers resuscitation. Thus far, he has hardly been a choker on that front, using the funds available to him wisely as 14 out of the 15 players he has brought to the club have made some form of positive contribution.

Yet, for all that he insists spending money in itself is no guarantee of success, he is guaranteed to be without success if he doesn’t spend heavily. Warburton and Rangers’ powerbrokers must square the circle in financing a 
footballing upgrade with sums they do not appear to possess.

This is the conundrum facing the club as it prepares for a future in which the demand is to recreate the best of the past, while avoiding the dangers that then proved so horribly destructive.